Thursday, July 14, 2011

Five Things the Dallas Cowboys Must Address Before the 2011 Season

There is no question that for the last five years or so the Dallas Cowboys have had the talent to compete for the Super Bowl.  However, for whatever reason, the Boys have continuously fallen short of their ultimate goal.
Once again the Cowboys will enter yet another football season with high aspirations.  Sure, Dallas has the talent to eventually hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy, but is it in the right place and will it be coached correctly.  Now with Jason Garrett at the helm, most die hard Cowboys fans believe so.
Still, there are some things the Boys need to iron out before they step on the field for real on September 11 in New York.
Here is a list of five things I feel the Cowboys need to sort out before they begin their 2011 journey toward Indianapolis, Indiana and Super Bowl XLVI.

Offensive Line Depth

With the drafting of USC's Tyron Smith in the first-round, the Cowboys have attempted to address one of their needs.  However, the Boys' overall depth behind the starters is still a huge liability.
What is certain is that Smith and Andre Gurode will be starting in the trenches come Opening Weekend.  After that, things are a little uncertain.
If the Cowboys can re-sign Doug Free, arguably the team's best lineman last year, he will also start along side the previous two guys.  The focus is then moved to Kyle Kosier.  The Boys will have to decide whether they want to try to re-sign Kyle Kosier and cut Leonard Davis, or let Kosier walk and roll with Davis.  If the cap gets lowered under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the chances of the team re-signing Kosier and letting Davis go will increase.  That still leaves a hole on the line which may be filled with Montrea Holland, who played in 14 games last season, but that is up in the air as well.
Regardless of which way Dallas chooses to go, its back-ups will be very inexperienced. It is yet to be seen what the Cowboys will do with demoted lineman Marc Colombo, but after him there isn't much left.
David Arkin and Bill Nagy are both rookies.  Jermey Parnell was relegated to the practice squad last year and did not see the field.  Sam Young and Phil Costa were rookies last season and played in a combined six games (Costa started one).  Robert Brewster saw the field once.  Then there is the infamous Alex Barron, who played in 11 games, but is mostly remembered for his holding call against the Redskins that cost the Boys a week one victory.  Personally, after his play in that game, I don't think he should have been allowed on the plane.  Unfortunately, he brings the most experience amongst the back-ups heading into 2011.
Dallas will not have much money to throw around on any free agent lineman and will probably have to go ahead with what they have.  If injuries crop up on the line like they did last season, the Boys will have to rely on some inexperienced players to protect their franchise quarterback.  That could spell doom if it were to happen.

Determining the Inside Linebackers

            New Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan likes the 3-4 defense and will probably stick with the same scheme the Cowboys have been running for the last few years under Wade Phillips.
The outside linebackers are not in question, as DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are locks at the position for the foreseeable future.  The inside linebackers are the ones that come under scrutiny.
Bradie James and Keith Brooking have been the Cowboys' inside linebackers for the last two years.  Brooking signed with Dallas in February of 2009, while James has played all eight years of his career in the Silver and Blue.  While James is aging, he still has a few good years left in him as a run defender.  Brooking, on the other hand, may have reached the point where it is best for him to spell the starters for a few plays here and there.
Sean Lee is the linebacker-in-waiting and should be given the chance to show what he can do as the Cowboys' second starter along side of James.  Of the three, Lee had the highest amount of tackles-per-play (.12) and the lowest missed-tackle percentage (5.0) in 2010.  Brooking was last of the three in both tackles-per-play (.08) and missed-tackle percentage (6.7).  Furthermore, Brooking tallied 23 less tackles than he did in 2009 despite playing more snaps.
The only thing Brooking has going for him is his pass defense, as he deflected the most throws of the three (5) and has the lowest reception-percentage against (65.2).  James actually was the worst at 83.9.  He also had the worst yards-per-attempt (7.6) and yards-per-snap (4.6).  Still, all Ryan would have to do is remove James in Nickle situations and leave Lee in as the lone middle linebacker.
Meanwhile, Lee had the best numbers of the three in yards-per-attempt (4.9) and yards-per-play (.33).  He also had two interceptions.
The best starting combination appears to be James and Lee.  Lee also seems to be the best one capable of handling the inside on passing downs.  Whether Brooking will accept the new role, and if the Cowboys' coaching staff even comes up with the same philosophy, is yet to be seen.

The Running Back Depth Chart

The Dallas Cowboys have a deadly trio of running backs.  However, the order in which they use them may have to be altered in 2011.
The Cowboys ranked 16th in the NFL last season in rushing yards per game at 111.6.  That number could be attributed to a few different things, such as injuries, no holes from the offensive line, trailing in ball-games or just an overall lack of running ability.  While I do not believe it is the latter, teams that win in the post-season have powerful running attacks that they can go to late in games.
Felix Jones led the team in rushing last year with 800 yards.  Barber was second with 374 (missed three games) and Choice was third at 243.
Barber has clearly lost a step and is no longer the bruiser that he was three years ago.  Nowadays he seems to get to the line, do a little two-step dance while trying to find a hole, and dive forward for two or three yards.  The coaching staff has also seen a decline and has even given it the thought of cutting Barber.  While I do not think Dallas should cut him (unless his contract is too much), I do believe that he should be delegated to short-yardage and goal line situations only.
That said, I believe that Choice is more than capable of handling those situations as well.  Choice has shown a hard-nosed style when needed along with his ability to break long runs.  He averaged nearly a half-yard more than Barber last year (3.7 to 3.3) and had one less run of 20+ yards in nearly half the snaps.
Jones may be the favorite for the starting job and he should be.  His 4.3 yard-per-carry average tied him with the likes of Chris Johnson and Knowshon Moreno.  Still, I feel as if Choice has shown the ability to split the carries if needed.  In fact, the Boys may want to start Choice for the early between-the-tackles running and use Jones as the change-up as they did two years ago.  I would be happy either way though.
The main point of all of this is to demote Barber.  It is somewhat tough to say considering he was clearly the Cowboys' best back three years ago when he was behind Julius Jones, but it seems as if wear-and-tear has already caught up with him.
Dallas must have had this in mind, as it selected Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray in the third round.  The Boys must not have been too happy with their running game if they decided to take a back that early.
It will be up to Garrett to delegate the running duties.  Hopefully he has the testicular fortitude to realize what must be done and split the carries up the right way.

Finding a Consistent Kicker

Chris Boniol.
True Dallas Cowboy fans remember the name well.  He was the last good kicker the Cowboys have had.  His last year with the team was in 1996, so that is saying something.
Dallas has lost numerous games over the years due to their lack of a consistent kicker and it was evident once again in 2010.  After letting Nick Folk (who had a 90 percent year in 2008 before dropping to 64 percent in '09) walk, the Boys turned to kickoff specialist David Buehler.  While he certainly had the leg to hit the long ones (hit two 53-yarders), he was hit-or-miss from short-to-mid range (4-for-7 between 30-39 yards, 8-for-11 from 40-49) and finished with just a 75 field goal percentage.  He also missed two extra-points.
Buehler missed his first field goal in week one.  While that may not seem too bad, had he made the kick the Cowboys would not have been forced to go for the touchdown on their last-second play.  At the very least they could have tied the game and gone into overtime.  He missed another in a 30-27 loss to New Orleans, although most people will put the blame of Roy Williams and his fumble late in the game.  Still, the extra three points would have pushed the game into OT.  Four weeks later the Cowboys rallied to take a lead over Arizona (26-24), only to have Buehler miss the extra-point and watch the Cardinals' Jay Feely nail a 48-yarder with five seconds to go to win the game.
Jerry Jones is notorious for not wanting to spend more than $1M on a kicker.  It was the reason Boniol walked in 1997 and it is the reason the Cowboys will never have a reliable kicker.  Until Jones comes to embrace the fact that kickers have a huge impact on the game, Dallas will be stuck putting its title hopes on a guy with a strong but inaccurate leg.

Suring Up the Defensive Secondary

What once was a strength for the Dallas Cowboys in 2008 has quickly turned into its biggest weakness heading into 2011.
Whereas the Cowboys' pass defense was fifth best in the NFL in 2008 (187.7 ypg) thanks in part to a league-leading 59 sacks, it has steadily declined to seventh-worst in 2010 (243.2 ypg).  The Boys were also seventh-worst in completion-percentage allowed (64.4).  On top of all that, Dallas gave up the second most points (27.3 ppg) and surrendered a league-worst 33 touchdowns through the air.  Only the porous Houston Texans were as bad.
Terence Newman, a two-time Pro Bowler, is quickly aging and has never really lived up to his potential as a top-five pick.  Sure he had some good years (All-Rookie team in 2003, Pro Bowl in 2007), but only last year did he record more than four interceptions (five).  Newman may still have a few decent years left in him, but injuries seem to be catching up to him.  Although he has not missed a game in the last two seasons, he always seems to be popping up on the injury list with some nagging injury.
Newman's fellow corner-mate, Mike Jenkins, was more than solid in 2009.  Jenkins started 15 of the team's 16 games (including its two playoff games) and picked off five passes while deflecting 19 more.  He, along with Newman, were named to the Pro Bowl as injury replacements.  However, Jenkins took a huge step backwards in 2010.  He managed just one INT and nine pass deflections and even had his character called into question after he failed to attempt to tackle an opposing player near the goal line.
Both of these guys were getting burned left and right last season.  Still, it seemed as if the entire Dallas passing defense was getting torched, so they can't take all of the flack.  Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball, Orlando Scandrick and Bryan McCann need to receive some of the blame as well.
Something happened to the Dallas D midway through the season.  Through their first five games, the Cowboys only gave up an average of 180 yards through the air and only once did they give up more than 216.  However, starting with their Oct. 25 game with the Giants, Dallas went on to allow an average of 299 passing yards over the next nine games.  Here is the breakdown:

NYG - 297
JAX - 238
GB - 277
NYG - 373
DET - 263
NO - 333
IND - 365
PHI - 258
WASH - 286

Some were 'passing' teams.  Some weren't.  For the past decade the Dallas run defense has always been in the top half of the league.  Coming into games, especially last year, teams knew that the way to get by the Cowboys' defense was to throw over them.  The NFL has quickly become a passing league and for at least the last two years it seems as if the Cowboys have been behind the curve in learning how to cope with it.  Some of it is attributed to quarterback pressure, and hopefully Rob Ryan can bring some of that back to Big D, but regardless the secondary was getting burned too often to even think about making a serious run at a title.
Of course I would like Dallas to make a run at free agent Nnamdi Asomugha.  Who wouldn't want one of the league's best cornerbacks on their team?  But I just don't see Jerry Jones going after him with 1. Asomugha's asking price and 2. the new CBA.
Hopefully Rob will borrow some of Rex's blitzing schemes and take some of the pressure off of the secondary.  Either that or just give the opposition some different looks.  The fact is is that something needs to be done because it is almost certain that teams will be looking to test the Dallas secondary once again in 2011.

Check it out on Bleacher Report here. 

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